Flying the TF-104G-M

“Mission 153, Grosseto Tower, line-up and wait, runway 03”.

It’s November 27th, 2000 and I’m on the back seat of the TF-104G-M MM54554/4-48 of the 20° Gruppo (Squadron). In front of me sits Capt. Andrea Truppo, an experienced Instructor Pilot (IP) of the 4° Stormo (Wing), who is busy following the steps of the pre-takeoff checklist, clearly audible through the intercom: “Tanks: feeding, Wing flaps: Take-Off, Inertial reel: Locked, Speed Brakes: In…….”.

We are close to the “Southern” threshold,  just a few meters behind the lead aircraft of the formation, the MM54553/4-44, piloted by Col. Germano Quattrociocchi, former Wing Commander and by Capt. Daniele Locatelli, an IP with almost 2,000 flight hours on the “one-o-four”.

The sky is slightly veiled, visibility is excellent, there is almost no wind. We engage the runway following the other Starfighter, overcome the arresting cable that marks the beginning of our take-off run and take the “slice” of 03/21 on the left of the centerline.

The other “Tieffe” (T-F) is motionless on our right, slightly ahead of us. Quattrociocchi raises his left hand and rotates his forefinger, signaling the beginning of the engine run.

The first slam is very fast: the throttle is pushed to its end stop, then pulled back to 90% and finally to the minimum regime. The engine react as expected and we can start with the second slam: throttle to 100%, the aircraft, fastened to the ground by the brakes, vibrates violently.

The stabilized parameters of temperature and oil pressure are normal, the nozzle position is correct and all the gauges are in the green arc. We bring the J-79 to rest by throttling back to Idle. “Tower, 153, canopy closed, ready for take-off”.

I take advantage of the last few seconds before departure for my last minute checks: my feet are far from the rudder pedals, my knees are at a safe distance from the control stick and throttle, the ejection handle is free between my legs, the ejection seat is armed, the safety pin is in position, the mask fits snugly to my face and the helmet’s dark visor is down. Everything is ok. I’m ready.

The clearance radioed by the Tower arrives a few seconds later: “Mission 153, cleared for take off, wind is calm”. This is it.

The throttle instantly jerks forward, stopping at Military. Quattrociocchi tosses his head energetically as if to hit the cockpit: let’s rock!

Truppo instantly releases the brakes, pulling the throttle along its lateral guide up to Full AB, the maximum thrust with afterburner.

For a split second the aircraft does not react, then quickly overcomes the inertia and embarks on a frenzied race. The violent acceleration causes a sense of dizziness.

The speed increases dramatically such that perception of movement is distorted and the feeling is of lying flat in a rocket fired towards the sky, rather than being “kicked in the bottom”.

I can’t see the runway, as my front view is obstructed by the canopy mounts, yet I can clearly see the long red flame from our leader’s afterburner and, through the rear view mirror, the tip tanks that vibrate, flexing the tiny wings. The “TF” literally devours the runway.

At 180 Knots we start the rotation. The bar goes to our chest, the nose points towards the sky, the variometer comes to life, the altimeter goes haywire, my helmet becomes glued to the headrest as the ground quickly disappears behind us.

The leading aircraft is clearly visible through the windshield 100 meters our 1 o’clock.

“Gear up” as the speed keeps increasing rapidly.

We are still in full AB trailing the smoke getting out of the leader that has already reduced to Military thrust.

As Truppo gets too out of the afterburner the aircraft reacts with an abrupt reduction of speed and the first thing I think is that we are experiencing an engine stall and that I will have to eject since noise is almost undetectable.

We join up with the other TF104 in a gentle left turn towards the town of Siena.

Even if we are flying from only a couple of minutes, I can already notice that the flying attitude of the Starfighter is completely different from the other jets I’ve already flown: the “missile with a man in it” is much more stable (and consequently less maneuverable) and it is a perfect photographic platform.

No turbulence, no vibrations, the aircraft seems to be running on the railtrack. Furthermore, cockpit is not so small as advertised since I have enough space to take the pictures (even some self-protraits), to remove and load films in the camera, to watch the instruments and the nice Tuscany countryside.

Flying at more than 420 knots we soon reach Siena that we overfly in a large left-hand turn towards the Tyrrhenian sea.

The moment to become the “pilot in command” of this legendary bird has come. “It’s yours” Truppo tells me.

We are now in a spread formation and after moving the camera to the left hand I put my right one on the stick. The aircraft keeps flying without even noticing the change.

I test the reaction of the F-104 by turning slightly to the right and to the left of our path. Now the difference with an MB.339 is much more evident: the stick is very hard and rotating the fighter on the longitudinal axis requires more strength.

In a few minutes we are flying above the sea heading South, with Truppo back in command.

Beyond the tip tanks I can see the beautiful coastline on my left and Elba Island on my right. As we are entering the working area located a few miles south of the airbase, Grosseto Approach informs us that there is another flight of F-104s, slightly higher, our 9 o’clock, leaving the zone to land.

Truppo immediately spots them while, despite my efforts, I’m not able to catch them: he is a former interceptor pilot and his eyes are very well trained to see targets very far away. As the area is completely clear we climb to higher levels to start some aerobatic maneuvers.

First of all we begin with a couple of wingovers. Despite some buffeting, the aircraft is again much more stable and keeping the formation is not so difficult although, especially during the initial climb, in the first quarter of the loop, additional dry thrust is essential.

Checking pitch is paramount when the F-104 maneuvers vertically, since exceeding 15° AOA (Angle of Attack) would probably lead to an unrecoverable pitch-up.

Then, we perform some barrel rolls that we complete in nose-down position in order to gain speed for the subsequent loop.

Although we don’t exceed 3 – 3,5 G I struggle to keep my camera pointed to the leading aircraft and I finally have some rest as we are on top, inverted, with the G-meter dancing around no gravity point.

A quick look at the fuel indicator makes me realize that this is going to be the last maneuver.

We get out of the loop at low level with our nose pointed to the Southern Gate for a VFR recovery in Grosseto. We will chase the leader that will land before us then we will perform one last visual pattern for a “full-stop” landing.

Weather is still good over Grosseto airbase as we overfly at 3.000 feet the Initial Point with the runway 2 miles ahead of us. “Mix 153, on the break!”: reaching the middle of the runway the leader banks left to enter the downwind leg of the approach pattern and after a few more seconds we follow him.

Base turn completed, we are established to the left of the runway as the TF-104 “4-44” of Quattrociocchi and Locatelli lands on runway 03. We retract the undercarriage and perform another pattern.

Flaps down to the landing position, three green lights confirm the gear is down and locked, landing light on, antiskid is operative: we are ready for final approach.

Truppo banks left to intercept the final approach course to the runway. Our Indicated Air Speed is something between 170 and 180 miles per hour.

Since the F-104 uses a Boundary Layer Control that blows engine air over the leading edge of the wing, throttle must be set so as to keep RPM well above 80% thus providing the proper airflow needed to prevent stall. That’s why landing is so fast and even more shocking than the take off for a private pilot like me not used to land so fast.

“Mix 153 dash 2, you are number one, cleared to land, wind is calm”.

Runway threshold passes below us at 150 knots and few moments later we touch the runway with no flare. Speed is still too high to apply the wheel brakes so Truppo deploys the drag-chute to reduce our landing roll.

The aircraft suddenly decreases its speed and we finally clear the runway at the last taxiway on our right. Taxiing is uneventfull and we soon reach the 20th Gruppo apron where we park our bird.

As I get out of the cockpit I realize that I’ve just spent 1 hour flying with the legendary F-104: an experience I will never forget.

© David Cenciotti

Below, a selection of the pictures taken during the mission described in the article.